Star Wars The Force Awakens Review

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A decade after the last movie, more than thirty years after the last movie people actually liked, and a numbing amount of prerelease hype, a new Star Wars movie has hit theaters. For once, the wait was worth it.  The Force Awakens is an unqualified triumph and one of the best movies of the year.

Taking place thirty years after Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens opens with the stormtrooper of the First Order, which has replaced the Empire, massacring a small village on a desert planet.  It highlights the two central thrusts of the movie.  The first is the familiar.  During this scene, important information is stashed in a droid who is sent away to get help, just like at the start of Star Wars.  It also shows a stormtrooper react to the atrocities he and his allies commit.  That is what The Force Awakens does.  It frequently and intentionally alludes to or straight out copies scenes from the original trilogy, but combines it with fresh new character and concepts.

It really shines in bringing new heroes to the series.  Rey is this trilogy’s desert prodigy child, following in the footsteps of Anakin and Luke.  She is immediately charming and compelling.  Unlike Luke and his yearning for adventure and excitement, Rey has no desire to leave her home, not until the parents that abandoned her there come back to get her.  As she gets caught up in greater struggles than she knows, she becomes all the more interesting.  Then there is Fin, the one time stormtrooper who is rebelling against his training.  He is awkward and jumpy and ultimately relatable.  The third member of the triumvirate is Poe, a hotshot pilot who is all charm and confidence.  In some ways the three are simply a rearranging of the trio of Luke, Han and Leia, but they all feel fresh and interesting.  Taking the place of Darth Vader, both and the villain and literally in character, is Kylo Ren, a failed Jedi student who consciously apes the famous bad guy.  This deliberate mixture of old and new occasionally leans a little to hard on the old.  As much fun as it is to see Han, Chewie, and the Falcon, the stronger parts of the film are the parts that are moving forward, not looking back. In this movie, Han is passing the baton, not taking center stage.

The Force Awakens brings back a sense of momentum and adventure to the series.  It is a propulsive film, sometimes to its own detriment.  At all times the movie feels the need to keep the action up.  That is a big improvement over the flat dialogue and a turgid romance of the prequels, but it has its own drawback.  The movie never takes the time to let the character breathe; there are few scenes like Luke at home with his Aunt and Uncle or his first training on the Falcon.  Even when they are there, they feel truncated.  That is less a fault of this movie and more a commentary on the current state of blockbuster movies.

If there is one thing I do not like about The Force Awakens, it is the narrative that has sprung up around it, that the fans have come to fix what Lucas put wrong. The prequels, and to a lesser extent the special editions, have long been a target for supremely nerdy hate.  I am not going to try to defend them, other than to say that they are in no way bad enough to deserve such vocal hate, but this attitude about them and their relationship to TFA is disappointing.  The idea that TFA is what the prequels should have been, but George Lucas was unable to see it rings false.  For all that TFA does well, it highlights the prequels strengths.  Those movies, for all their faults, had a sense of newness about them.  They weren’t the same hero’s journey of the originals, but a broken form of that.  The special effects, which have not aged well, were on the cutting edge.  The Force Awakens lacks that feeling of newness. There is a sense of a return, that things are back they way they should be, but I perversely yearn for those unknown territories.

Still, Star Wars The Force Awakens is a triumph.  It may hew a little too close to its predecessors, with a few too many direct references, but otherwise it is astounding.  While the old favorites are used as a selling point, the new blood is what is going to keep me coming back.  Rey, Fin and Poe are characters I can’t wait to learn more about.  Kylo Ren, for all his intentional aping of Darth Vader, is an original villain, more pathetic and pitiable than scary.  He is still highly dangerous, but he feels more like a teenager throwing a tantrum and less like a powerful force of evil.  Star Wars The Force Awakens lives up to the legacy of its predecessors.  It is a terrific continuation of the saga that is hopefully one glance backwards before moving on to the new.

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What I Read in November 2015

I read a solid four books in November, my average.  I have already passed my yearly goal of fifty, settling in somewhere in the high sixties.  It has been a good year, even if I don’t do much reading in December.

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Murder on the Orient Express
Agatha Christie

This is often on lists of best Christie stories and after reading it I would say it deserves it.  It is hard to review a mystery without spoiling it.  Here, Poirot is on a train when someone is killed.  The murderer must be one of the dozen other people on that train car and it is up to him to ferret out just who is responsible. One thing this story does deal with the justification of a murder.  Murder on the Orient Express makes it very clear early on that if someone could deserve to be murdered; it was the victim of this story.  He is truly reprehensible. That gives a clear cut motive for the murder, revenge, but it is up to Poirot to find out who is seeking revenge on this man.  He must also determine whether it is justice to find the killer.  Really, it is easily one of the best of Christie’s that I’ve read so far. It is excellent.

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Old Man’s War
John Scalzi

This came highly recommended and it didn’t disappoint. Old Man’s War is a science fiction war story, along similar lines to Starship Troopers and its ilk.  In it, elderly people can sign up with the Colonial Defence Forces to extend their life. John Perry is one such person; Old Man’s War is his account of joining the CDF and his time serving in it.

There is nothing truly new or groundbreaking here, it is just a very well executed rendition of its genre.  Perry first learns to deal with his new body, since the CDF is not sending the elderly out to fight aliens, and his new neural implant that allows him to communicate with this squad mates.  He makes some friends in boot camp, the get sent separate ways, some of them die.  There are various alien races to fight with, notably the Rraey who like to eat people and the mysterious Ghost Brigade, who are sent on the most dangerous missions.

It ends up feeling a little insubstantial.  It spends a lot of time introducing characters in boot camp who then all but disappear and it becomes all about the battle and aliens.  Still, what is here is very enjoyable.  Its greatest sin is leaving the reader wanting more, which isn’t much of a sin at all.

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An Impartial Witness
Charles Todd

I wanted to like this a whole lot more than I did.  It has some compelling characters and a decent mystery.  It just feels very labored in telling the story.  Characters do things that they would clearly not be inclined to do. They keep talking with Bess Crawford, the detective, even though they have no Earthly reason to do so. While it is necessary for the story, the book fails to justify its central character’s place in the proceedings.  Her motives are clear, and she follows through, but nearly everyone else does things just so the plot keeps moving along.  It is really noticeable at only a few points, but once I started seeing it, it really stuck out. Still, it wasn’t an unenjoyable book, but for all that the setting and central characters grabbed me, the rest of the book just wasn’t strong.

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
John LeCarre

LeCarre is a master of keeping the reader from knowing exactly what is going on.  Each scene is clear, but there is clearly information that all of the characters have but the reader doesn’t.  It makes for a disorienting read. It not being clear doesn’t stop it from being compelling.  Still, it is nice to read a spy book that is not about Bond like action, but instead about ferreting out information to solve the mystery.  There is a mole at the top of the British Spy organization, and George Smiley, who was forcibly retired in a takeover, comes out of retirement to find out who it is.  Outside of knowing that, there is little that the reader does know.  Information, both relevant and not, is doled out in small doses as Smiley and his compatriots get to the bottom of things. Smiley is singularly unexciting spy, being an old man that only talks to people, but his is still a rich character.  

Collected Comics

Batman and Robin Vol 1-3

I picked these up in a recent comixology sale of Grant Morrison comics a month or so back.  I had read them when they first came out, but hadn’t really touched them since.  It is a great series, but it might be the weak link in Morrison’s epic Batman run.  Being sandwiched in between Batman RIP (and Final Crisis) and Batman Inc is some tough luck. Still, these are some excellent comics, though the rotating art team makes the quality pretty variable.  Nowhere is that more evident than in the first collection, which goes from a story with Frank Quitely on art, which is wonderful, to Philip Tan stuff that is nigh unreadable.  It is by far the worst in any of the three volumes, but the variable quality of the art pervades the series.  The story, though, is solid all the way through.  It has Dick Grayson taking over as Batman in Bruce’s absence and Damian takes over as his Robin.  It has great character work for both Dick and Damian, as well as a ton of fun Joker moments. The best part may be the way this team reverses the usual Batman & Robin dynamic, with Damian playing bad cop to Dick’s good cop.  It is just a great series.

JLA Vol 1

The other purchase I made in that same sale. The first story in this series is one of the best Justice League stories of all time and the second is also good. This collection shouldn’t take much to sell it.  It is the big seven JL fighting bad guys that are worthy of bringing seven of the most powerful heroes into the world to combat them.  It doesn’t do a lot with the interpersonal side of superhero stories and is instead just the biggest action scenes possible.  Morrison really makes things work and Howard Porter is fine. Seeing the Justice League fight doppelgangers designed to beat them is a ton of fun and it is followed up by having them fight an army of renegade angels.  This book is simply amazing.  

Creed Review

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The Rocky movie series has already undergone several metamorphoses.  It started as a relatively grounded movie about a down on his luck boxer before morphing into that same boxer’s larger than life tales as the World Champion and then cratering into whatever the hell Rocky V was supposed to be and finally becoming the mournful dirge of Rocky Balboa, with its ruminations on loss and life.   All of the movies, save V, have something to offer.  And presented over the Creed represents in some ways the biggest departure for the series, but is actually more like the original than any film that followed it. The biggest change with Creed is right in the title.  This is not a movie about Rocky Balboa, as all the previous films have been, but a movie with Rocky Balboa.  It uses the history and characters of the series as its structure, but it turns the whole thing into a cycle.

At the risk of spoiling the whole thing, Creed is built on a more than similar framework to Rocky. For large parts it is beat for beat identical, the biggest difference being that starting situations of the two title characters. Adonis grew up with his father’s wife, notable not his mom, in relative luxury instead of Rocky’s rather impoverished roots. Still, the story hits a lot of the same beats, though it does it with style and emotion. It is a sports movie, viewers will know the formula, but Creed executes it nearly perfectly.

It works because it nails the psychology of is characters. Adonis feels like something of an imposter, growing up in the shadow of a father he never met. His forays into boxing are both about proving that he belongs and a way to connect with that father. Rocky, meanwhile, has all but given up. He is still the charming guy he has been for six movies, but his friends are all gone and even his son has moved away. He is an old man that doesn’t feel he has a lot to live for.

Creed works on its own merit. Knowing who Rocky is previously isn’t necessary. There is little here that isn’t explained in the film itself. However, the previous six Rocky movies work form a lot of context that helps speed things along. Knowing who Adrian was isn’t necessary, the movie makes it clear she is Rocky’s deceased wife, but having watched her in previous Rocky movies makes the scene of Rocky sitting in the cemetery reading the paper to her grave all the more effecting. It is very satisfying to see Rocky move on from the ring and fully become Mick. He is now the one telling the youngster that women weaken legs. Everything has come full circle.

If there is one flaw to this movie, other than its predictability, it is that they again used a real boxer for Creed’s eventual opponent. It is not that Tony Bellow did a bad job as desperate champion Ricky Conlan, but the filmmakers were wise enough not to rely on his performance outside of boxing. Instead, the always delightful Graham McTavish does most of the work for the opposite corner. A big part of the appeal of Rocky was the in how appealing Creed was as an opponent. Carl Weathers was a perfectly charming Ali-type champion for the lower key Rocky to work against. Bellow doesn’t really provide that. Also, by having a real boxer as the opponent creates a visual mismatch with them in the ring. Michael B Jordan as Adonis has very showy muscles, Bellow doesn’t. It is a little distracting.

The formula that produced the first Rocky is a good one, and Creed recreates it almost perfectly. There are just enough new touches to keep things interesting, even if they never stop being predictable. You may know the beats as the come, but when they are hit with as much skill as they are here you can’t help but be moved. Creed is an excellent movie, one that stands with the first Rocky in the pantheon of great sports movies.

****1/2


What I Watched in November ‘15

Movies

Spectre – review here. **

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – I queued this up right after finishing the book.  It is a tense and understated spy movie, with the focus being more on the psychological battles instead of action scenes.  It is well acted and completely engrossing.   ****

The Peanuts Movie – review here.  ***½

King Kong – I love Peter Jackson’s King Kong.  It is long and it has some really terrible effects shots, but there are just so many great scenes that I can’t help but love it. I love Jack Black’s slimy Carl Denham and Kong himself. Denham just can’t help but be the worst person, you never get the feeling that he is lying to anyone more than he lies to himself. ****

The World is Not Enough – The action scenes are really rough, but this is the sort of Bond movie I enjoy, warts and all.  It is nothing to write home about, but it is certainly entertaining.  ***

The Man from UNCLE – I really enjoyed this, so I bought the DVD. It holds up to repeat viewings.  ****

Dinner for Schmucks – This movie gets by on some really funny leads in Rudd and Carrell, but it is still either too mean spirited or not mean spirited enough to really fly.  Because it has just enough of a cruel streak to be uncomfortable but not enough to go all the way. Still, there are a lot of really funny moments and characters.   ***

The Cobbler – I had heard this movie was bad, but I wasn’t really prepared when I watched it.  It starts fine, despite Sandler being a complete nonentity in the title role, but as soon as it establishes its concept, that when Sandler’s character Max puts on the shoes he’s repaired he becomes that person, it veers off into crazy town.  Really, little once he starts changing to movie is just unbelievably bad. What Max does with his powers tends to the inexplicable, moving from one laugh-less adventure to the next with little rhyme or reason until it gets to the even more ludicrous conclusion. *

Mad Max Fury Road – My family in for Thanksgiving hadn’t seen it, so we watched it.  Still the best movie of the year.  *****

Creed – review coming soon. ****½

Rocky 2 – It is Rocky 1 again, only this time not quite as good.  Still, it is highly entertaining.  ***1/2

Rocky 3 – This is the movie that turns Rocky from character drama with boxing to cartoons about boxing.  Still, it is a super fun cartoon.  ****

Rocky 4 – This one goes further down the road to crazy town, but doesn’t stop being super entertaining.  ***1/2

TV

Supergirl – I won’t deny that the show is experiencing some growing pains.  Its seems to be spreading its characterization around a bit too thinly, with no one but Kara and maybe Jimmy Olsen getting enough development to be memorable.  Still, the good parts of the show have been really good.  I think it has the potential to be as good as The Flash, but it’s not quite there yet.

The Flash – This is still the best superhero show.  On TV or anywhere.  Still, this season has not been quite as smooth as the first one.  It is spending a little too much time setting up pieces for the upcoming Legends of Tomorrow, but the rest of it still coming along nicely.  Plus, it just did a Gorilla Grodd episode that set up Gorilla City.

Arrow – Still not as entertaining as its little brother, but the show seems to be more focused than last season.  It also has a somewhat lighter tone, which works better for what this show has become four seasons in.  The show just feels really comfortable right now.

Jessica Jones – I plan to have a full write up on this show coming soon, but for now I’ll just say that is it very good.  It gets dark, occasionally stupidly so, but it is largely well acted and written.  Most of the attention had been paid to David Tennant’s villain, for a good reason, but just as strong was the central relationship between Jessica and her best friend/adoptive sister Trish.  That is the real emotional heart of the show and it works flawlessly.

Master of None – I’ve loved Aziz since first seeing him on Parks and Recreation, and then seeing his stand up.  This show it just short of a masterwork.  It manages to be really funny and really heartfelt at the same time.  Many of the situations Aziz’s Dev finds himself in are ridiculous, but the larger problems he deals with, like relating to his parents or weighing the choice of becoming a parent, are real.  Any show that can be this real and this funny is something to be treasured.  

Now Playing in Nov ‘15

It wasn’t really a banner month for playing games.  I just didn’t have a lot that felt worth playing.  Triforce Heroes was great, and I’ll likely get back to it for some more online play, and Legend of Heroes Trails in the Sky is some good comfort food gaming, but otherwise I spent my time doing other things.  

Beaten

Legend of Zelda Triforce Heroes – wrote about it here

Yakuza 4 – The Yakuza series is unlike anything else around.  It manages to feel current and more like something from the PS2 generation, in a good way.  It is some combination of a GTA style game with the sensibilities of something like River City Ransom.  I unabashedly love this series, to the point where I am unable to write coherently about it.  Yakuza 4 is narratively a departure for the series, being the first game that is not about Kazuma Kiryu, at least primarily.  It is more like four small Yakuza, each with a different protagonist, jammed together.  It makes the game seem both really long and too short.  Each individual segment is a little too short, but combined it makes a more than lengthy adventure.  While none of the new protagonists are Kiryu cool, but each of them has their strengths.  I can’t wait until Yakuza 5 later this year, hopefully.

Ongoing

Pokemon Alpha Sapphire – I finally overcame losing a ton of progress in this game, only to again lose a ton of progress.  How my niece hit the cartridge in the 3DS with a nerf dart while I was playing it and managed to eject it from my system I’ll never know.  While in many ways this version of Pokemon is obviously the best, especially in the way of little conveniences that make playing easier, it is still my least favorite to actually play.  The pacing of this adventure is laborious and unintuitive.  I went several hours without so much as sniffing a gym, only to fight two back to back.  I am also not a fan of the roster of pokemans available in the main game.  I just can’t seem to build a team that I like.  That last problem is all on me, though.  

Legend of Heroes Trails in the Sky – This is jrpg comfort food.  It seems to be deliberately hitting notes much like games from the 16-bit days or the entire output of GameArts.  It never really elevates above the style of games it is imitating, but it is a pretty fun facsimile.  It does have a problem with being overly talky, but that doesn’t really get in the way.  I hope to have it finished and have a full post up before too long.

Conception 2 – I don’t like this game.  That is the nice way of putting things.  I have a long post that goes into more detail about how I find it creepy and gross, but I’m not sure if I’ll post it.  Just to be clear, though, this game is creepy and gross and simply not very good.

Smash Bros 4 – With my brother’s in town for Thanksgiving, we played a few hours of this.  It was the first chance I had to really play with some of the new characters.  Lucas, Ryu and Roy are a lot of fun, as is this game in general.  Every time I play this I say to myself that  I need to play this more, only I never end up doing so unless I have my brother’s around to play with.  I really stick to it this time.  Or maybe I’ll just play Xenoblade X.

Upcoming

Xenoblade Chronicles X – While everyone gushes about that Fallout game that you couldn’t pay me to care about, I am going to go nuts over what is essentially its Japanese equivalent.  Just proof of the hypocrisy at work anytime I go off about how much I don’t like Bethesda games.

Rune Factory 4 – I bought this from the eshop during the Black Friday sale.  I have enjoyed pretty much all the time I have put into the previous entries in this series, but I still tend to lose interest before I get too far.  Or my disc gets damaged and I can’t continue, like with the Wii game.  Hopefully I play this for more than a few hours before it gets stuck permanently in my to get back to pile.

Steamworld Heist – This has been among my most anticipated titles all year.  December 10 is hardly the Fall release I was promised, but nothing is going to stop me from snatching this up right away.